“That man is happiest who lives from day to day and asks no more, garnering the simple goodness of a life” (Euripides).
EVERYBODY AGREES ON OUR NEED FOR MORE CONTENTMENT, BUT NOBODY AGREES ON WHAT CONTENTMENT IS. It doesn’t mean apathy or complacency, it doesn’t mean we have no longings or aspirations, and it certainly doesn’t mean we’re lazy. Contentment simply means that whatever our unmet needs may be, we have the wisdom and strength to deal with them rightly. Above all, it means that we are joyously grateful for what we have right now.
While there are other things we might be discontent about, it is money, material possessions, and earthly enjoyments that give us the most trouble. We are (especially in the “developed” countries) driven by an unhealthy desire for more — always more — of these things. There is no reasonable point at which we’re willing to say we have enough. Happiness always waits just beyond our next purchase.
But if we had to be discontent about something, wouldn’t our character be a better object of discontent than our possessions? What we are matters more than what we have, so shouldn’t we be more dissatisfied with the present state of our inner life than with the balance in our bank account? Surely this would be a more productive priority.
Indeed, our desire for material satisfactions may result from holes in our character that we’re not paying attention to, and until these inward deficiencies are supplied, we’ll be on a constant treadmill. Doris Mortman said it succinctly: “Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have.”
So contentment is a difficult idea. It’s important how we define it, and even more important how we prioritize our discontentments. If virtuous character is what we want more of, then discontent in that area is probably a good thing. But with everything else, we need to be more satisfied. At present, some things may be disagreeable, perhaps painfully so. We must bear these with fortitude. And as for the future, many things may be uncertain. We must meet these with courage.
“I endeavor to be wise when I cannot be merry, easy when I cannot be glad, content with what cannot be mended, and patient when there be no redress” (Elizabeth Montagu).